Tipping the scales: nutrition for brain health

By Marilyn Walls, M.S.

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Marilyn Walls

Marilyn has a Masters of Science in Nutrition from Bastyr University, where she also taught as an adjunct professor. She has written articles for local publications, a book on family and Alzheimer’s from a nutritionist’s perspective, and has taught hundreds of classes throughout the U.S. on nutrition, supplements, essential oils, sustainable eating and natural skin care.

My mother, born on a farm in the red dirt of Mississippi, where she survived the Depression and World War II, grew into a woman who reigned as queen in the kitchen. In Memphis, she fed family, friends and missionaries from her collection of recipes on a table set with napkins and ceramic napkin rings she made. She out-Martha’d Martha Stewart long before her empire existed — until Alzheimer’s disease (AD) erased those skills. At first, I thought she was merely enjoying a well-earned retirement; I didn’t know the tau and tangles in her frontal lobes thwarted the simple planning of a meal. The trail of milk chocolate candy wrappers, under her bed and on living room tables, led like fairy-tale breadcrumbs to the sad truth of her decline. Food is fuel, and as a nutritionist, I knew her brain needed more than her adored sugar. Yet, food can be a challenge for both patient and caregiver. Below are some foods that I recommend to help keep your brain healthy.

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Marilyn’s mother

From the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, we learned that adopting four or five healthy lifestyle choices could reduce AD risk by 60%! Scott Small, MD, director of Columbia’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center explained: “In a complex disease, each gene and each environmental factor is like putting a pebble on a scale. None of them by themselves can prevent or cause Alzheimer’s. So if your parent has Alzheimer’s, that puts one pebble on the scale. But if you went to college, if you exercise, those are pebbles on the other side of the scale.” Let’s add nutrition pebbles to balance that scale, because many studies link a healthy diet to improved cognitive function.

What makes a brain healthy diet?

A healthier diet has been associated in studies with slower cognitive decline and a lower risk of developing AD. For instance, in a University of Washington study, Alzheimer’s biomarkers were affected by diet: the markers moved toward a normal level in those who ate a healthy diet, while the biomarkers of those who ate an unhealthy diet moved in the direction seen in people with Alzheimer’s disease. 

Broadly stated, a healthy diet involves whole foods like vegetables and fruits (I can’t say that enough), whole grains, nuts, legumes, healthy oils, fish and moderate consumption of lean meats and dairy. What we eat should be minimally processed, nutritious food — as close to its natural form as possible. This pebble means eating more from the nourishing groups and less from the unhealthy groups: the unhealthy includes too much red meat, margarine, pastries, colas and fried food. Try to decrease food felons such as excessive added sugar and refined products, because junk food may weaken brain function.

Vitamins and antioxidants

Green tea adds antioxidants to your diet and can be neuroprotective. According to an article published in the The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, higher consumption of green tea has been associated with a lower prevalence of cognitive impairment. 

B vitamins are needed for normal brain function. B vitamins can be found in leafy greens, whole grains and nuts. Folate is crucial in the nervous system at all ages; moreover, in older adults, folate deficiency may contribute to aging brain processes and increases the risk of Alzheimer’s.  Increase folate in your diet with lentils, broccoli and asparagus. A deficiency of B6 may cause confusion, depression or irritability. Sweet potato, avocado and tuna shine as B6 stars. 

Vitamin D regulates neurotransmitters and helps maintain cognitive function. In a 2014 study published in Neurology, a severe deficiency in vitamin D was associated with a 125% increased risk of dementia, surprising even the researchers. Thankfully, supplementation of vitamin D serves as an alternative during lack of sunlight.

Healthy fats

While a comparatively small organ, the brain is the most fatty, composed of about 60% fat. If we are what we eat, then we can be potato chip brain or omega-3 brain. DHA is the omega-3 comprising about 20 to 30% of the brain. The body cannot create omega-3s; thus, they must be acquired through diet or supplements. Salmon and other fish provide the most omega-3s. Walnuts, flax seeds, hemp seeds and green vegetables offer plant omega-3s. 

Blue and purple foods

Blueberries and other purple or blue foods may protect the brain’s hippocampus and stimulate new brain cell creation. These foods’ anthocyanins — also in cranberries, black beans, grapes and foods in the blue color spectrum — pass through the blood-brain barrier to optimize hippocampus function. A study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry showed blueberries could improve short-term memory in all demographics. If you balk at blueberries, include other anthocyanin-rich foods in your diet, something tinged with purple like blackberries, figs, black rice or purple carrots.

Blueberries put me in my happy place. Big fat, sweet, azure orbs. Can’t you feel those anthocyanins knock-knock-knocking on your hippocampus door? Why on earth would Eve give it away for an apple? Surely there were juicy blueberries waiting for her in Eden. It was paradise, after all. 

The gastrointestinal (GI) tract has been called the body’s second brain. The gut houses hundreds of neurotransmitters the brain needs to regulate mental processes such as learning and mood. The good bacteria that reside in the GI tract are like tiny, tiny little pebbles on the scale because of their work to send these neurotransmitters to the brain. 

Good bacteria 

Adding good bacteria to the diet can be as easy as eating yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kim chi or other fermented foods. Many flavors of kombucha drinks are available. Recognize what decreases the good bacteria: antibiotics, stress, illness and diet colas. Feed them the fiber they need, from fruits and vegetables, but especially the fiber inulin found in such foods as sunchokes, fennel bulb and onions.

Emphasize the positive

To eat better is a decision to move pebbles from one side of the scale to the other. Rather than dwelling on the no-no list when improving your diet, emphasize the positive additions. More kale can crowd out fries; quinoa can replace red meat; and for my mother dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate. Gradually, the food on your plate can shape shift, even if only once a day. Habits evolve, pebbles change the scale’s balance and perhaps the brain improves along the way.

5 thoughts on “Tipping the scales: nutrition for brain health

  1. What an informative and reader friendly article on Alzheimer’s disease. Nice if this information gets absorbed before we get to the age when dementia begins to fog our brains. Health programs in our education systems would benefit from this inclusion.

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